Keeping ballot box sacred

February 20, 2000|By Paul M. Weyrich

ANOTHER ONE of our liberties is going to be taken away without our consent unless we get on this case now in a major way. Clearly what has solidified our liberty in this nation is the sacredness of the ballot box. We could cast our vote and we knew that our vote really counted. Over the years hundreds and hundreds of elections at all levels were won by a single vote.

Already our system of government has been greatly compromised by the so-called Motor Voter laws. People can show up at the polls on Election Day to vote and in most places little is done to check on their authenticity after the fact.

Former Rep. Mark Neumann would have been in the U.S. Senate but for the 50,000 same-day registrants who showed up to vote in Wisconsin's 2nd Congressional District, the home of the main campus of the University of Wisconsin. They were there to support Tammy Baldwin, the openly lesbian candidate for Congress and in the process voted for incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold. How many of these votes were fraudulently cast we will never know, but at least it is theoretically possible to track down those same-day voters if the state has the will to do so.

But this latest threat will make that impossible. What I am referring to is electronic voting by computer. The U.S. government is running an experiment in the coming elections permitting hundreds of military families stationed overseas to vote by e-mail. No doubt the experiment will be pronounced a great success, and if we fail to understand the significance of this, it will mark the end of secure voting as we know it.

Already electronic voting was permitted by the Alaska Republican Party in their recent caucuses for 3,000 citizens of extreme Northern Alaska who live in tiny villages which are days from the rest of civilization. Those citizens contend that without that system, they would have been denied the vote.

Perhaps so, and perhaps a case can be made for use of electronic voting in some very narrowly defined and highly unusual circumstances.

But if we open up the entire system to electronic voting, you can say goodbye to the security of the ballot box forever.

The system would work like this: You would apply to vote by e-mail and in return you would receive a PIN number. You would use that PIN number in casting your ballot just the way, according to proponents, millions of financial transactions are done each day at ATM machines.

Yes, my point as well. How many cases of fraud are we dealing with on a daily basis all over the nation? PIN numbers are stolen by the thousands. We are now even having to face hundreds and hundreds of cases of identity theft.

If that kind of fraud can be rampant when we are talking about, in some cases, small amounts of money, what will it be like when a whole election is at stake? Not to worry, say the proponents. Why, the Pentagon has developed encryption that keeps our ballistic missiles safe. So also can they develop encryption to keep our elections safe. Right! And what of the hackers who have penetrated the Pentagon files? That is just what we hear about. I am told by reliable sources that ordinary citizens don't know the half of it. Once that system would be in place, the temptation would be too great for the corrupt not to try to compromise it. Moreover, a government which wanted to stay in power would, after all, have the keys to that whole operation.

However good the intentions of those who have designed this experiment for the military families in remote places, e-mail voting must not be permitted a toehold unless and until Congress has examined the system and unless and until extremely narrow exceptions are in place. I don't even like it then because liberals have always used narrow exceptions as precedent and suddenly what was to be a rarity becomes the norm.

The digital age is exciting and indeed we should make use of its many possibilities. But there is no substitute in this republic for making the effort to register and then to show up to vote.

Yes, I know some states now mail in ballots. That is bad enough, but at least it is harder to tamper with mail ballots on a wholescale basis than it would be to tamper with electronic results. We could have entire elections altered and no one would ever know the difference. It could be done without a trace. Please, please, good people, don't let this happen here.

Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation. He wrote this article for Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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